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Nigerian human traffickers go on trial in the Netherlands

A billboard in Benin City, Nigeria, warns against the dangers of human trafficking.  Photo HH
A billboard in Benin City, Nigeria, warns against the dangers of human trafficking. Photo HH

By Sheila Kamerman and Dick Wittenberg
A high-profile trial against eleven suspects of human trafficking between Nigeria and Europe got off to a false start this week.

On May 4, 2006 a Nigerian woman who goes by the name of Jenny arrives at Schiphol airport on a KLM-flight from Lagos. She is travelling with a Nigerian man who had guided her through the check-in and customs in Nigeria. At Schiphol, the man asks Jenny to wait while he gets something to eat. When he doesn't return, Jenny panics.

That's how she was found by a policeman who belongs to a unit specialised in human trafficking. Jenny ends up at the IND, the Dutch immigration and naturalisation service, where she is introduced to Wilma Hompe, an immigration lawyer.

It doesn't take Hompe long to figure out that Jenny is a victim of human trafficking. She fits the profile: lured to Europe with vague promises on a paid-for trip, papers in her purse she knows nothing about and caarying a fake passport. Hompe has a pretty good idea of what is in store for Jenny.

Transit country
Jenny says she is 16. The Netherlands doesn't allow unaccompanied minors to be sent back immediately, not even to a "safe" country like Nigeria. The Dutch authorities are required to first make sure that there is adequate reception at the other end. Meanwhile, Jenny will be placed in an open shelter for unaccompanied minor asylum seekers. There a human trafficker will intercept her on her way to school or church.

"At the time, the Netherlands were being flooded with girls like Jenny," Hompe says. "The police weren't doing anything about it because the girls were not yet victims of human trafficking upon arrival; they were only potential victims. They had not yet been forced into prostitution. Although it was clear that the Netherlands were being used as a transit country, the police were concentrating on deportations. They had targets to meet."

The next day a Nigeria calls Hompe's office from a German phone number. He says he is Jenny's cousin. How he found out that Hompe is acting as Jenny's lawyer, he doesn't want to say. Jenny says she doesn't have a cousin in Europe. It is clear to Hompe that this is a human trafficker trying to locate Jenny.

Hompe puts in a call to a special police task force on human trafficking that was set up in 2005. A police investigation begins.

Public outrage
When the different police services start comparing notes, a pattern quickly emerges. Over the past few months, dozens of Nigerian women like Jenny have arrived at Schiphol airport. They all tell the same rehearsed story of how their parents were killed during fighting between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria. Many of them have false identity papers. Most have since disappeared from the shelters - destination unknown.

From Bonded labour in the Netherlands, a leaflet warning against human trafficking produced by, an advocacy group. Illustration Francine Heremans

It is nothing new that Nigerian human traffickers have been using the Netherlands as their gateway to Europe. From 1996 to 1999, some four-hundred Nigerian girls have disappeared from the government shelters. Some were later found in Amsterdam's red-light district or in sex clubs elsewhere in the Netherlands. In 1999, Dutch parliamentarian Boris Dittrich gave voice to the growing public outrage over this situation when he said that "Dutch asylum policy was facilitating the prostitution business."

A few Nigerian human traffickers were arrested in the 90s but the business at large was unaffected. The gangs no longer put the women to work in the Netherlands but in neighbouring Belgium and later in southern Europe. When circumstances changed, they quickly adapted destinations, supply routes and methods. Nigerian women may have disappeared from the Dutch brothels, but Jenny's arrival proved that Schiphol, with its direct flights to Nigeria, was still very much a hub for human trafficking in 2006.

In November 2006, the police start investigating a Nigerian called Solomon. His phone is tapped. His BMW 3-series is fitted with a transmitting device. Gradually, the police start getting a better idea of the organisation behind the human trafficking. A travel agency in Nigeria is in charge of getting papers for the girls, the customers are Italian brothels. The Netherlands is the transit country where a top operative takes possession of the girls and sends them on to their next destination. He has about twenty helpers, including several in Belgium and France.

The Dutch authorities are faced with a choice: either arrest the Dutch branch of the organisation, with the risk that someone else will take its place in no time, or go higher up the food chain. "We realised that if we wanted to uproot this organisation, we would have to go all the way: from the country of origin to the country of destination," says Warner Ten Kate of the national public prosecutor's office.

In March 2007, the Dutch police liaise with the Italian police who start their own investigation. Nigeria is a tougher nut to crack. There are no official police contacts, no extradition treaties, no direct experience with the ill-reputed Nigerian police. A local partner is found nevertheless in Naptip, a Nigerian organisation dedicated to the fight against human trafficking that reports directly to the president.

Jenny goes missing
Meanwhile, Nigerian women keep arriving in the Netherlands. Police count at least 89 potential victims in 2006 and 50 in 2007. And despite warnings about what awaits them, the women keep disappearing from the shelters. Jenny also has gone missing.

From Bonded labour in the Netherlands, a leaflet warning against human trafficking produced by, an advocacy group. Illustration Francine Heremans

Through the phone taps, police discovered how the traffickers were putting pressure on the women. They reminded them that they had signed a contract back in Nigeria, and how higher powers had sealed that contract through rituals. Did they really think they could escape punishment? And what about their families back in Nigeria? One women panicked when she received a curse from a traditional Nigerian priest via a text message to her phone.

The Dutch authorities are faced with a dilemma. Given the opportunity, the police would have liked to plant chips under the women's skin to track their whereabouts, or better yet, to lock them all up. But locking up asylum seekers - minors who have not committed a crime - is going too far for NIDOS, the Dutch institution entrusted with the guardianship of minor asylum seekers. The women themselves blame the police for endangering the lives of their families by keeping them from fulfilling their obligations to the traffickers. In the shelters, the women start breaking windows and attacking the staff.

At the same time, the police investigation is starting to pay off. Police witness a meeting between Solomon and a British suspect in Sheffield. The take pictures of Solomon meeting an Italian suspect in Amsterdam. They find out that Solomon gets a money transfer from Nigeria every time a women disappears from a shelter.

On October 24, 2007, police in the Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain, Spain, France, Germany and the US raid the houses of eighteen suspects. The main suspect in Nigeria initially gets away but is later trapped with the help of Naptip. On January 15, 2008, the Italian police arrest 51 suspects.

Voodoo rituals
But the Dutch police now face another problem. Most of the suspects are in custody - seven from Nigeria, three from other African countries and one from Surinam - but none of the Nigerian women has filed a complaint. The women don't trust the police. They fear deportation but also the religious rituals.

The authorities seek the help of a former victim of human trafficking, a Nigerian woman who now has resident status in the Netherlands and is employed as an interpreter for the government. She tells the women about her own experiences. The police also turn to a Nigerian preacher, Moses Alagbe. He tries to calm the women's fear of spiritual vengeance. He tells them that God is mightier than any number of voodoo rituals. In the end, ten women agree to file a complaint.

Almost seventeen months after the arrests, the case finally went to trial this week. The public prosecutor's office is calling it an historical trial and the result of groundbreaking police work.

"For the first time we have been able to tackle the entire chain from beginning to end," says Ten Kate. He says the level of collaboration between the different European police forces is unique. "This rarely happens. Europe is a high-speed train when it comes to economics but it is a horse and cart when it comes to the justice system. And we have demonstrated that it is possible to work with the Nigerians in the fight against human trafficking. France, Norway, Italy, have already followed our lead."

But there is no reason to assume that the investigation has dealt more than a temporary blow to the human traffickers. The airports of Geneva and Budapest are reporting suspiciously high numbers of Nigerian women arriving there. And most of the women who came through the Netherlands are still missing.

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